Aidan Smith: ‘Aren’t we all tennis obsessives?’

Complete with now-missing sweatband: Gabriela Sabatini holds a special place in many peoples hearts.  Picture: Ian Rutherford
Complete with now-missing sweatband: Gabriela Sabatini holds a special place in many peoples hearts. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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I don’t know where it is. I mean, I know where it should be: the shoebox containing all my ticket stubs from a lifetime of sporting and musical entertainment, plus a few diamond souvenirs which have slipped through the fingers of the gods, such as Ritchie Blackmore’s plectrum. I cannot be absolutely sure this was the little plastic strumming aid with which the guitarist delivered those dial-to-11 kerrangs the night I saw Deep Purple, but as I found it next to the stage afterwards that’s what I’ve always believed. Where oh where, though, is Gabriela Sabatini’s sweatband?

The most surprising thing about last week’s revelation from Andy Murray that he once had a strange encounter with a tennis obsessive was that people were surprised by it. I mean, aren’t we all tennis obsessives?

The Murray incident happened a couple of years ago. He was woken at a hotel by a maid who’d crept past the “Do not disturb” sign on the door and was sat on his bed stroking his arm. The girl then followed him across Europe, turning up at tournaments in Barcelona and Rotterdam.

What’s not recorded was Murray’s reaction. The Scot has a wonderfully disappointed expression which he reserves for the most inane question at post-match press conferences. I witnessed this glower at Wimbledon in the summer when Murray, inset right, doing his darnedest to win the title, was asked why he thought the SW19 towels were such sought-after souvenirs. To be fair to Murray, he made light of the arm-stroking when he recalled it. “I don’t know if that’s a fan thing that’s a bit extreme, but it happened,” he said.

Why tennis, why does it get the loonies? A lot of reasons, I think. When a sport’s this beautiful it can provoke over-the-top responses. It’s a sport that many of us, if we could play one really well, would choose as our game and when watching long matches there’s plenty of time for fantasies to go a bit dark. You can be studying your favourite player for anything up to the five hours Murray slogged it out with Juan Martin del Potro in the Davis Cup recently – almost three times the length of the average feature film – so maybe it’s hardly surprising that weird thoughts can develop.

Weirdest, and most frightening, of course was the belief that gripped Gunter Parche, an unemployed 38-year-old German, who reckoned that the best way to preserve the honour of his tennis idol Steffi Graf in 1993 was to plunge a serrated knife into rival Monica Seles’s back. The wound healed but the psychological scars remained and Seles was never quite the same player after that shocking moment.

In the case of the dark and mysterious one – that’s Sabatini, not Blackmore – I did not stroke her arm, make her woozy and relieve her of her sweatband that way. She tossed it into the crowd on Wimbledon’s No 1 Court – my favourite court on account of the thin circular roof, very Argentinian, like Gaby – and I managed to barge a couple of drooling lads out of the way to catch it. That was all. I mean, I’ve managed to misplace it. I’m at the laidback end of the tennis-obsessive spectrum. It’s not as if I went home, put the sweatband in a high-power bench vice and squeezed out the last droplets to freeze and keep in a fetching icebox display for ever. It’s not as if I wrote this:

“Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini/For I know it tastes as pure as Malvern water/Though laced with bright bubbles like the aqua minerale/That melted the kidney stones of Michelangelo.”

That’s from the poem the great Australian wit Clive James wrote about women’s tennis in which he namechecked just about all the players who “made it difficult to keep one’s tongue from lolling like a broken roller blind”, though Betty Stove got a mention, too.

James revolutionised TV reviewing. He watched the programmes we all watched; the odd bit of highbrow but plenty of lowbrow. And he reviewed direct from transmission, not preview tapes, so he could be hilarious about Harry Carpenter’s “rain commentary” when the redoubtable sports anchor had to “fill” furiously because the tennis had once again been interrupted by monsoons.

Watching telly for a living is a fantastic job, the best I’ve ever had, but unlike most other forms of reviewing, or indeed reporting about sport, you do it on your own and things can get a bit, well, sweaty. “When the rain stops long enough for the true beauties to come out swinging under the outshone sun,” James’s poem continued, “the spectacle is hard for a man to take.” A certain perviness was always part of his appeal.

Mind you, he wasn’t as pervy about tennis as Kingsley Amis, whose son Martin once demonstrated for me how the old man used to scuttle over to the TV set when Ann Jones was playing and stick a thumb on the screen where her face was. “He just liked looking at the rest of her,” Martin explained. You can’t get away with that sort of thing these days.

The late American writer David Foster Wallace tried to take tennis-writing to a higher plane, describing Roger Federer as like watching “chess on the run”.

Except that a strange book came out last year called called Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, in which the author William Skidelsky revealed how the great Swiss’s groundstrokes basically dictated the course of his life.

For instance, when his partner fell pregnant only to have the pregnancy terminated, these were his actions: “My girlfriend, understandably grief-stricken, wanted closeness, intimacy. But I ran away. As ever, I sought refuge in tennis. This was the week of the World Tour Finals.”

Maybe tennis was genteel once, played with crushing politeness out in the shires. But with tennis superstars have come tennis obsessives and tennis loonies and the sport can sometimes be odd, crazy and dangerous. With my sweatband, which I’m not sure I even own any more, I feel normal, a bit dull.

But Gaby had more than just dusky beauty going for her. As Seles was recovering from her ordeal, her fellow players voted to have her relieved of her No 1 ranking – only Sabatini said she should be allowed to keep it.

“Gaby is a human being,” remarked Seles. “The rest, they treated me like I had a sprained ankle or something.”